DAMASCUS: Syrian government forces ambushed members of an Al-Qaeda-linked group Friday, killing dozens of them near a historic Christian village north of Damascus, activists and state media said.
State TV said troops surprised fighters of the Nusra Front at dawn near Maaloula, which the group along with other rebels captured in late November for the second time this year. Maaloula had previously been firmly in the government’s grip despite being surrounded by rebel-held territory.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that dozens of opposition fighters were killed, and that 20 were wounded.
Maaloula is on the edge of the rugged Qalamoun region, about 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, where the government has been on the offensive for weeks capturing a number of towns and villages in the area.
Syrian TV aired footage of dead rebels in an open area with patches of snow. Most of the gunmen were civilian clothes and some still had their rifles. One of the dead had two rocket-propelled-grenades tied to his back.
A TV reporter moved toward a wounded rebel who was lying on the ground and asked him what nationalities they had among them, and the wounded gunman responds: “We had Saudi citizens with us.”
Saudi Arabia is among the strongest backers of Syrian opposition fighters who are trying to remove President Bashar Assad from power.
Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the war and some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic.
The village has been under rebel control since last month. Most of Maaloula’s 3,300 residents have fled to safer areas.
However, some pro-opposition sources disputed the Observatory’s version of events, saying that the victims were actually refugees from the towns of Nabk and Qusair. They said the refugees had decided to flee from Nabk toward the town of Yabroud to escape government troops and paramilitaries, who have been accused of committing massacres in Nabk during the current Qalamoun offensive.
The sources said that the refugees were ambushed by government troops during their flight and that many were cut down when they wandered into a mine field. They put the casualty figures at around 15 killed and 25 wounded.
Elsewhere, the Observatory said, regime aircraft dropped crude “barrel bombs,” which have killed hundreds of people this month, on the Azamieh neighborhood of Aleppo, as well as the village of Jassim, in the province of Deraa in the south. The Observatory said an undetermined number of people were wounded in the attacks.
The weekly Friday demonstrations, held in various parts of the country, were staged under the slogan “Barrels of death – with international approval,” to protest the lack of foreign pressure on the Assad government to halt the deadly attacks ahead of next month’s planned Geneva II peace conference.
Also in Aleppo, mortar bombs struck the government-held neighborhood of Jamalieh, killing at least four people, the state news agency SANA and the Observatory said.
SANA said 14 people were wounded in the attack while the Observatory put the number of 15.
Various sources reported fierce fighting at the Deir al-Zor military airport in the east, where Islamist rebels are spearheading a bid to seize the facility from government troops, but precise casualty figures were unavailable.
The Local Coordination Committees, a nationwide network of activists, said Friday’s preliminary death toll stood at 75 people, with 34 casualties reported in Damascus and the surrounding areas.
The Observatory said that a total of 140 people were killed in violence across the country Thursday, with more than 90 of them coming from the ranks of fighters on both sides of the conflict.